If only we could see ourselves through the eyes of those that love us.
If only I could see myself through the eyes of those who love me.
If only we could see ourselves
Through the eyes of those
Who love us.
Oh what I’d give to see myself
Through all your loving eyes.
I wish that I could see myself
Through all your loving eyes.
‘If only we could see ourselves through the eyes of those that love us.’
Sophie realised she’d been muttering to herself. ‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to say that out loud.’
‘No, it sounded great. Is it a Sophie original?’
If Sophie had been a hairy woman, she would have pulled her beard in two like Snow White’s Bashful. Instead, she nodded.
‘It’s a powerful idea.’ Rosa avoided a puddle. ‘And I can sympathise. If I remembered how much Ernest loves me, I’d never worry about how I look. And yet…’
‘The old noggin’ likes to play games.’
‘Ha, ha, you can say that again.’
They weaved their way through Munich’s Englischer Garten. It was prettier than any actual English garden either of them had seen. They braved a hill, convincing their tired legs that the view would be worth it.
‘I was going to keep it a secret,’ said a thigh-pumping Sophie, ‘but I’ve started writing some poetry.’
‘No way!’ Rosa’s voice rose with her foot. ‘That’s awesome. So is that one of your lines?’
‘I’m constantly tweaking it, but the idea’s there.’ Sophie thought of the notebook in her rucksack. She hesitated… But her excitement overcame her nerves. ‘I’ve actually finished one poem. Do you want to hear it?’
‘Oh, I’d love to. So long as you don’t mind?’
‘Of course not,’ sliding the rucksack from her shoulder. ‘I can’t hide from feedback forever.’ Sophie found the right page. ‘It’s called “Wand’ring Feet”.’ She cleared her throat. ‘Ready?’
‘Ready and waiting.’
‘Okay, here goes:
“She pours herself
A crimson glass,
The time should pass,
How words should form,
How thoughts should flow,
How she might find
The seeds to sow.
No voice can fill
This silent day,
As Dylan sings,
Lay, lady, lay,
And adults scorn
A life too mild,
But truly mourn
The fallen child,
Who did not die,
But was replaced,
By woman lost
And man defaced.
An empty ache
Behind the eyes,
The spirit wanders,
The soul, she cries:
O endless day!
What must I do
To fill your hours,
To change your hue?
What song can soothe
My weary mind,
What joy is left
For me to find?
She drifts away,
She drowns the hours,
With morning tears
And gentle showers.
The mirror spots
Her stifled yawn
– O to leave
The shoes now worn.
And on croons Dylan,
Across his bed –
Its frame is brass,
Her body lead.
But deepest dark
Prepares the light,
The root of pain,
The clearest sight.
With eyes made new
She sees the smile
Of future self
Beyond the trial,
She sees the fruit,
How it was planned,
She sees the glass
Returned to sand.
How good to thank
The cause of pain,
To find relief
Within the strain.
The table laughs,
As friends return,
What do they feel,
How do they yearn?
The same as she,
Or even deeper,
Or has she been
The lonely weeper?
She rounds the bend,
With end in sight,
For surely day
Will follow night,
And looking up,
She is surprised,
To find a girl
With darling eyes,
Whose golden green
Did turn to woe,
For it is she
From long ago.
And so she asks,
Why do we roam
If wand’ring feet
Will take us home?
At last the source,
Where Joy is crowned,
A face restored,
A woman found.”’
Sophie closed her notebook and felt at peace. She could not say “I have had my vision”, but the underlying anxiety of the past two months withdrew under the weight of her satisfaction; she was pleased with her first effort, even if certain lines needed tweaking. More important than the quality of her work, though, was the act of creation itself: she had waged war on her demons. And although she had struggled to enjoy the writing process, her pain had never stayed her pen, and the serenity of the final verses inspired her now.
‘That was amazing.’ Sophie finally understood why Ernest liked to call Rosa ‘Cartoon Eyes’; she was the Happy to Sophie’s Bashful.
‘I loved it. Trust me, I’m surprisingly honest when it comes to things like this – just ask Ernest. But that was great. You’ve got talent.’
‘Thanks, Rosa. That definitely makes me want to keep writing.’
‘Oh, you so should – especially right now. You could try publishing some poems online.’
‘I hadn’t thought of that. Sounds… a little bit scary, but exciting too.’
‘You’ve got nothing to lose. I’m sure Ernest would love to chat about it.’
‘I’m a bit embarrassed to mention it to him.’
‘Don’t be silly. Haven’t you spent enough time with him to realise he’s not some kind of otherworldly genius?’
‘Ha, ha, I see what you mean about the honesty.’
Rosa’s shoulders bounced in Scooby-Doo fashion. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I think Ernest is an incredible writer. I find his words so beautiful. But, let’s be serious, he’s still a fairly normal guy. Most writers aren’t these mysterious prophets revealing hidden truths to us poor, poor philistines. So just because you’re not deeply philosophical doesn’t mean you can’t be a really good poet.’ Sophie had been missing an intimate female relationship since leaving home, but her mother’s voice seemed less distant when Rosa was around. Everyone praised her lust for life, which was certainly admirable, but it was Rosa’s strength that impressed Sophie most: 38 Children were not going to fail under her watch.
‘Thanks for the pep talk. I’ll look into the publishing when we’re back.’
This project had come at the perfect moment. After realising that BetterMe was just another self-help app doing more harm than good, Sophie had allowed her mind to explore parts of her mouth best left unnoticed. But now she had a simple goal: to post a few poems online. The importance of this goal was accentuated by her difficulties with God. On the back of Bert’s transformation, Sophie had decided to start at the beginning, with Genesis. But a host of podcasts and YouTube videos had left her mind reeling with conflicting views on the origins of life, Ancient Near Eastern literature, and the meaning of ‘day’ in the Judeo-Christian creation narrative. Poetry presented Sophie with a means of distraction. It would also give her something to talk about with Bert, after some slow conversations of late. Sophie was reluctant to disclose her interest in Christianity; she was afraid of getting Bert’s hopes up. Besides, his gorgeous eyes didn’t exactly put her in the mood for a discussion of Canaanite paganism.
But now was the time to bask in the autumn sunshine. The light fell through the trees, revealing a group of men and women surfing on the Eisbach. The wave was created by a step beneath the surface, and Sophie and Rosa later discovered that this was a well-known feature of the park. The surfers glided back and forth, engrossed in their pursuit. A teenage boy leapt onto his board, biting his bottom lip as he turned full circle, then carved across the wake before disappearing underwater.
The gardens loosened the knot in Sophie’s chest. Instead of dental aesthetics, she analysed the passers-by: whether they smiled or worried or lived without expression. She watched an elderly man reading Kafka. His eyes peered from behind tortoise-shell glasses, as November flapped his overcoat. Mud streaked the edges of his shoes, but he had lived far too long to bother brushing it away. Sophie wondered if he was married: whether his wife was shopping in town, or whether she had died before either of them were ready. The thirty-somethings, meanwhile, all seemed to be jogging. Sophie hoped they were chasing a goal rather than fleeing a spectre in their lives. Perhaps she was projecting her own anxieties, but she sensed they were moving for their minds rather than their bodies. Then again, she of all people knew that working on the body was a way of working on the mind; a twisted, futile way. The late-morning sun dampened their foreheads, and Sophie’s thoughts evaded her teeth. She noticed an outdoor café where a young man sat eating sausage and sauerkraut, with a pad of paper by his plate. He did not look German, but the smile on his face suggested a great appreciation for fermented cabbage. From time to time, he forgot his food and watched swans beating violent wings against sun-kissed water. The ducks swam away in fear as their colleagues took flight.
Sophie and Rosa heard the cry two minutes later. It was a brief, strained cry. Neither of them saw what happened, but they were the first to the scene. A man lay sprawled across the path; his bike sat collapsed to one side. Drawing closer, they saw that his knees were grazed, but otherwise he looked unscathed. And yet, his heavy breathing reminded Rosa of her reaction to Gylfi’s arrest. Fifty-five years on Earth had not left this man invulnerable to panic.
‘Are you alright?’ She bent forwards ever so slightly. The casualty continued to wheeze, not even searching for words. Rosa looked at Sophie, who dropped to her haunches and laid her hand on the man’s shoulder. Little by little, his breathing stabilised beneath Sophie’s touch. ‘Don’t worry, you’ve just got a few scratches. We’ll help you.’ His breath shuddered in the abandonment of panic; there was something of the soothed child about him as his nose whistled.
The man turned to Sophie, revealing bags under surprisingly spirited eyes. His hair was more salt than pepper, but his beard held onto better days. His cheeks were ruddy, his nose large. Sophie wondered why all this made him look so German. ‘Thank you,’ he said, with the slightest accent.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Yes, sorry. I became a little panicked, but I’m alright.’
‘Can we help you up?’ asked Rosa.
‘Sure, thank you. I won’t pretend to be tough.’ He smiled, baring his wonky, discoloured teeth. Sophie tried to focus on the sentiment behind the smile.
Rosa moved to his right arm, Sophie to his left. ‘Okay, here we go,’ she said. ‘One, two, three,’ and they hauled the man, who was somewhat heavier than they’d have liked, back to his feet. He brushed the dirt off his shorts and patted his pockets.
‘Let me grab your bike.’ Rosa returned the Trek to its wheels, collecting the stranger’s helmet whilst she was there.
‘Thank you, you’re both very kind.’ He was softly spoken but not shy. His voice reminded Rosa of Nick Drake.
‘Don’t mention it.’
‘No, I’m very grateful.’ He was in the middle of smoothing his hair when his eyes lit up. ‘In fact, I want to repay you.’ The stranger’s excitement confirmed rather than concealed his age, as his forehead wrinkled and his teeth suggested years of indulgence. ‘My wife is cooking a lovely lunch. Please join us at our home.’
‘Oh, no, you really don’t have to.’
‘Please, I insist.’
Sophie looked at Rosa. Unaccustomed to invitations for lunch from strange German men, they’d have preferred a pretzel or two in town. Rosa’s eyes were trying to make this clear.
‘Don’t worry,’ he added, ‘there’s nothing wrong with me. I just believe in gratitude.’
‘Umm…’ The man’s face was alive with expectation. Sophie saw how much it would mean to him. She turned to Rosa, who cocked her head and flicked her hands as if to say: ‘Looks like we’re doing this.’ Sophie decided to love her neighbour. ‘Thank you, that’s very generous. We’d love to come.’
‘Excellent! Anna will be delighted.’ Whilst they were too nervous to melt at his smile, it provided a thawing reassurance.
‘Is that your wife?’
‘Yes, my darling Anna. And my name is Peter. Peter Kahn.’
‘Great to meet you, Peter. I’m Sophie.’
‘Rosa. Very nice to meet you.’
‘And you too, both of you. We’ll have a delicious lunch. Are you hungry?’ Sophie and Rosa admitted that they’d skipped breakfast. ‘What a travesty!’ The confidence of the native had replaced his fear. Sophie could tell that this was Peter’s usual self, but they had seen a different side of him: the man afraid of death. ‘Don’t worry, Anna always makes extra. She’s worried I’m getting thin.’ He patted his not inconsiderable midriff.
They laughed with a trace of first-meeting awkwardness. ‘That sounds great. We’ve been looking forward to some local cuisine.’
‘Super, super. Actually, what time is it? Ach, Gott, half one already?’
‘Really? I thought it was much earlier.’ Sophie checked her phone. ‘Yes, it’s only half twelve.’ She noticed that she spoke more formally with foreigners.
‘Ach, silly me. I was using the German system. We say it’s halfway to the next hour. It makes sense if you think about it.’
‘Oh, of course, I remember learning that at school.’
‘You studied German?’ Even Anna hadn’t prompted such enthusiasm as this.
‘Yes, for A-Levels.’
Sophie dreaded the prospect of being quizzed on her adjective endings over lunch, but Peter chuckled, seeing her worried eyes. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t make you recite the alphabet; Anna and I like to practice our English. But come on, let’s go! We don’t want to keep the lady waiting.’
They found her making preparations for eventual guests. Although she didn’t know it, Anna always made too much food because she longed for a visit from a friend or family member. She wasn’t especially lonely, indeed she loved Peter with all her heart, but she missed the days when she and her husband would host dinner parties and barbecues and Easter lunches. They had grown closer in their fifties, but that came with a certain distance from friends. Their children, meanwhile, were too busy consulting, banking and child-rearing. Anna hoped they might stay for Christmas.
Peter hadn’t warned her about Sophie and Rosa. She was stewing red cabbage when she heard the jingle of her husband’s keys, followed by the sound of two young female voices. Were they speaking… Yes, they were. Anna stirred her cabbage, awaiting Peter’s explanation.
‘Meine Süße!’ He hadn’t called her ‘sweetie’ since Max had left home. Silly Peter, always trying too hard – and what a waste in front of guests who wouldn’t understand. She waited for him to reach the kitchen, then turned with a bemused grin.
‘What do we have here, mein Schatz?’ She never called him ‘treasure’ either, but now was the time for a little repartee.
‘Well, I had a fall in the park-’.
‘Oh, Petie,’ and his real nickname was revealed, ‘you silly boy. What did you do?’
‘It was very ironic actually.’
Anna looked at Peter with raised eyebrows. ‘Yes, these cuts are so ironic.’ Noticing two smirks in the corner of the room, she gave her guests a wink.
‘No, you see, I was cycling through the gardens as usual, but my helmet was a little loose, so I unclipped it to tighten the strap. But as I was fiddling with the stupid little buckle’ – of course it was the buckle’s fault, as she examined his knees – ‘I lost control, and then I…’
‘Fell on your little tummy. You might have had a softer landing if you ate your food.’
Peter turned to his guests. ‘What did I tell you?’ They laughed, although not enough to give him the upper hand in this badinage.
‘Oh, telling fibs about me already? Honestly, Peter, you must be more careful.’
‘I was being careful. That’s exactly why I fell.’ Rosa suppressed a laugh: Peter’s crash couldn’t have been more German. ‘Anyway, I’m fine – you shouldn’t worry. What’s for lunch?’
‘Grilled pork with potato puree and red cabbage.’
Peter looked to his guests for help. ‘What do you call potato puree? Smashed potatoes?’
Rosa smiled. ‘Mashed potatoes.’
‘Ach, silly me.’
‘You were very close.’
‘I was very close to clipping my helmet properly.’ Rosa wondered if Peter was a teacher.
‘But I’m not sure we’ll have enough, Peter. I didn’t know there’d be guests.’
‘Nonsense, Anna, I’m sure you’ve got six pigs in the oven.’
‘Well, maybe we’ll manage…’ She brushed her apron. ‘Forgive me, I haven’t asked your names?’
Once they’d completed the introductions, Anna asked what they were doing in Munich: Rosa explained that her band’s tour had been cancelled due to family reasons; Peter said that none of the remaining cities would have been half as nice anyway. This brought a scowl from Anna, who then loaded the dining table with an inordinate amount of food. The red cabbage was hot and tangy, the pork salty and tender, and the potatoes could not have been more beautifully pureed. Over the past five years, Anna had dedicated much of her time to cooking. It was when she felt at her most creative, and she loved sharing her enjoyment with others – even if ‘others’ usually meant Peter.
‘Do you still work, Anna?’ Rosa asked.
‘Yes, I teach part time at one of the local schools. English and Maths.’
‘Anna is a wonderful teacher. Very tough, of course, but the children love her.’
‘My approach has worked in marriage, and it works in the classroom.’
Once Sophie had regained control of herself, she asked Peter what line of work he was in.
‘I’m an environmentalist. I’m with LMU, the University of Munich. But I also have a T.V. show and I do lots of talks between my research.’
‘Peter is known as the German David Attenborough.’ She pronounced it Atten-burrow.
‘Ach, Anna, don’t be daft. One person called me that.’
‘I think you should be more proud of your work, Peter.’
‘Pride is a dangerous thing, Annie.’
Anna rolled her eyes, then speared her pork. ‘So you girls don’t have a plan right now? Or are you taking your band back to England?’
‘We’re not sure at the moment.’ Rosa wiped her mouth. ‘The trouble is, we’ve paid for our tour bus and a couple of hotels along the way, plus our flight home is from Lisbon.’
‘Hmm, that is tricky.’ Anna wagged her potato-covered fork at Peter. ‘Hey, Petie, why don’t they come with us?’
‘What’s that?’ Red cabbage spilt from his mouth.
‘Uch, you’re disgusting. I said they should come with us.’
‘To the camp, Dummkopf.’
‘Oh, to the camp. Yes, you must come!’ Peter seemed to expect a decision right there and then. Unfortunately, Sophie and Rosa had no idea what their hosts were talking about.
‘Umm, what camp?’
Anna took it upon herself to explain. ‘We run a camp outside Munich over the half-term. It’s an eco-camp.’ Forgetting his earlier wisdom, Peter nodded with pride. ‘Every morning, we teach the children about looking after the land. Then we do lots of nature exploring, sports, fun and games, making pizzas on the fire.’
‘That sounds amazing.’ Rosa had visions of trekking through the woods, roasting marshmallows, playing the German equivalent of Simon Says (Friedrich sagt? she wondered). Although wary of such a sudden change of plan, especially given how little they knew these people, she could not help feeling that Peter’s crash had happened for a reason. And the Kahns’ willingness to invite strangers into their life was inspiring. Rosa imagined that this was how life had once been. ‘I’ve always wanted to go to an eco-camp.’ She had written her name in Peter’s good books.
‘So you’ll come?’ he asked. ‘You and your friends?’
‘Well, what are the details?’
‘Very minor. Hardly any details.’
Rosa laughed. After recent events, the fewer details the better.
For some of the children, this was their second or third time at ECOCAMP. They were used to meeting camp leaders with thick Bavarian accents, thicker cargo trousers, and even thicker beards. Whilst a few of these hipsters remained, they were joined this year by a writer from Notting Hill, a Christian from Kensington, a teeth fanatic from Cambridge, a band manager from Norfolk, and three rock musicians from Croydon, Manchester and Tel Aviv.
‘Now this is more like it, lads.’ Jake hadn’t worn Wellington boots in eighteen years. ‘A bit of muck, a bit of rough and tumble.’
‘I can’t believe you dragged us into this.’ Whilst Aaron claimed he wanted to work on new material, he actually had a secret fear of geese. His bandmates were yet to notice his paranoid glances to left and right.
‘Just think of the album we’re going to write. Pet Sounds meets…’ Jake pictured the sixth woman coming forward to the police last night. ‘Well, you know what I mean. This will bring a lighter touch.’
Ernest, meanwhile, had always had a misplaced notion of himself as an outdoorsy, Bear Grylls kind of guy. He seemed to think his aggression on the football pitch qualified him to build log cabins, hunt rabbits, and roast pigs on a spit. When a goat knocked him to the ground on his first afternoon at ECOCAMP, he realised that farm animals were slightly more imposing than five foot six strikers educated at Charterhouse. He was good at raking leaves, though – so good, in fact, that Peter didn’t let him try his hand elsewhere. Bert joined Ernest for these raking marathons.
Rosa and Sophie suspected that the division of labour was based on traditional gender roles: Peter asked them to help two arm-tattooed women supervise a group of children. The youngsters proved eager to learn; they were enthused by the replacement of T.V. sets and mobile phones with peacocks and ducks.
Sophie had pointed out over lunch that the language barrier might complicate matters. Peter had remained unfazed: ‘Not a problem – you can leave most of the talking to my guys. Just pick the children up when they fall over, lead some silent games. Job’s a good one, as you would say.’
And so, for the second time in three days, Sophie and Rosa found themselves lifting an overweight German to his feet. On this occasion, the victim was a twelve-year-old lump called Bruno, who wore a hideous yellow raincoat all week even though it didn’t rain once, and who ate marshmallows like his life depended on it (Ernest sometimes wondered if it actually did). Despite these idiosyncrasies, Sophie developed a soft spot for Bruno. Indeed, the children were all wonderful, and she and Rosa had a great time setting up tight ropes, making dough, and giving piggy-backs to the smaller ones. They also became experts at wink murder, if only because it was a wordless game and thus, strangely, comprehensible.
The most intriguing element of ECOCAMP, however, was its caretaker, a fifty-seven-year-old man called Johannes. Although Peter and Anna ran the clubs, Johannes was the camp’s owner and heartbeat. He had been farming there since the age of four, and the animals still marvelled at his unfailing energy. When he wasn’t tilling the soil or feeding the goats, Johannes was sitting in his hut, which he had built alone. The furnishings were simple: a hot plate for frying eggs, a bed where he slept when the weather was fine, and a table big enough for three. The one element of luxury was the radio and speaker system: ‘every man cave needs music,’ he liked to say.
After five days at ECOCAMP, Sophie entered the hut to wash chicken poo from her hands. She found Johannes tinkering with the radio. ‘Ah, Sophie, how are you?’
‘Oh, hi, Johannes. I’m really well, thanks.’ The physical nature of the work had soothed Sophie’s mind. Although she still felt an urge to worry about her appearance, this was no longer a compulsion but a perverted desire. And whenever the knot in her chest did return, she forced herself to embrace God’s existence with childlike faith. No more Evolution vs Creationism videos for this gal. ‘How are you?’
‘Yes, fine, fine.’ Johannes rarely spoke about himself. ‘Would you like a lemon and ginger shot?’
Visions of weak enamel forced their way through Sophie’s defences. ‘I’m okay, thanks, but maybe a glass of water?’
‘Coming right up.’ Having poured their drinks, Johannes switched to a classical station. Sophie recognised Debussy’s piano. ‘You like classical music?’
She became aware of the smile on her face. ‘Yes, very much. It’s been too long since I’ve listened to any.’
‘It’s very calming, isn’t it?’ Johannes placed his mug on the table. ‘Please, take a seat. You and your friends have been working hard. You deserve a rest.’
‘Thank you.’ Truth be told, Sophie struggled to relax these days. But this was a necessary sacrifice, since maintaining a sharp mind was the best defence against her demons; she couldn’t allow herself idle thoughts. She looked at Johannes. The scent of lemons tried to wear her down. She embraced their freshness and returned her gaze to the caretaker. Given his reluctance to share personal details, Sophie had mostly learnt about Johannes’ life from second-hand sources. She had assembled an intriguing story:
After a happy childhood divided between farm and school, Johannes attended the Technical University of Munich, where he changed tack and developed a passion for finance. He then spent ten years working for a bank in Frankfurt, which, although stimulating at first, eventually plunged him into a deep depression. After quitting his job, he moved back to the family farm and returned to his former way of life.
Like many before him, Johannes found that physical work freed his mind. In fact, his depression lifted to such an extent that his father put him in charge of the goats; he rediscovered joy on those fields. This encouraged him to explore the connection between mind and body, as he sought an explanation for his recovery. Within a few weeks, he had foresworn sugar, caffeine and alcohol, adopted a low-carb, high-fat diet, studied techniques for maximising sleep, and developed a weights programme to complement his work on the farm. If he had ever left the camp and ventured into Munich, he might have become known as the ‘German Hulk’ or ‘Johannes Schwarzenegger’ (Johannes was fully aware that his countrymen lacked an aptitude for humour), but, instead, he built the hut where he and Sophie were now sitting, and began writing a book later translated into English as The Hyperborean Paradise: How to Fulfil Your Human Potential. Johannes envisaged a society in which men and women spent their mornings reading Marcus Aurelius, their afternoons exercising toplessly in the sun, and their evenings eating salmon and elk (hunted that day, of course). There would be meditation instead of prayer, kefir instead of alcohol, wrestling arenas instead of cinemas.
The book achieved cult status; his fans believed they had found a modern-day saviour. Unfortunately, periods of depression continued to plague Johannes to this day, and it was for this reason that his Hyperborean project had become limited to a second, less successful book and the ECOKAMP – his shelter from the world. Shelter was the key term, for Johannes lived an increasingly hermetic lifestyle. It seemed he no longer possessed the drive to spread his mission beyond the farm.
‘Are you having a good time with us?’ he asked Sophie, as the hut protected them from the wind. He sipped his lemon and ginger concoction.
‘I’m loving it. I feel a lot happier and healthier here.’
‘Of course you do. That’s the beauty of this lifestyle. You’ve escaped London, congratulations.’
Sophie smiled. ‘I’ll have to go back sometime soon.’
‘But why? If you feel happier here, why don’t you find a job at a place like ours? You don’t have to listen to your parents, your friends, that little voice inside your head…’
‘To be honest, I like listening to my parents and friends. The little voice is probably less helpful…’ Sophie wondered if a lemon and ginger shot would make her feel happier too. She pulled the brakes on this train of thought. ‘I’ve been wondering something: how do you know Anna and Peter?’
‘Aah. Now that is an interesting one.’ Johannes checked his watch. ‘Yes, we’ve got time.’ And then, as if he’d been waiting for this very moment, he began his tale:
‘I’m sure the others have told you about my vision for a better world.’ Johannes didn’t need to check Sophie’s response. ‘Well, Peter was one of my earliest followers. You see, about twenty years ago, Peter was diagnosed with colon cancer. The cancer was only in its early stages, but it hit him very hard mentally. Especially because he was a Christian; he couldn’t understand why his god –’ Johannes didn’t hide his disdain – ‘had failed to protect him.’
‘I didn’t know Peter was a Christian? I’ve seen the cross on Anna’s necklace, but Peter doesn’t strike me as the religious type.’
‘He’s not anymore, thankfully. Anna is still obsessed with all that Jesus mumbo jumbo, but Peter woke up many years ago.’ Sophie suspected that Johannes’ disdain for religion was part of why his project had failed; his narrow-mindedness made him scorn all other approaches to life. ‘So, as I was saying, Peter felt abandoned by his god. He would spend hours praying every day, asking for forgiveness, begging the Lord to take away his cancer. But nothing changed. In four long months, he received no answer from his god. Naturally, Peter’s faith was shaken. He didn’t give up on God just yet, but he started to explore alternatives.
‘A few weeks later, he came across my book in a wonderful little library in Munich. I’ll note down its name; you really must check it out. Anyway, he bought my book and read it in one sitting. He later told me that he’d never felt so much hope as when he was reading The Hyperborean Paradise.’ Johannes finished his shot, showing no sign of discomfort at the heat of the ginger or the sharpness of the lemon juice. ‘In the back of the book I’d written my email address so that readers could contact me. Peter got in touch, told me about his case, and asked if I could help. So I invited him down here.
‘He arrived in March, when the sun was shining. My immediate impression was that he was the type of man who watched his feet as he walked upstairs.’ Sophie wondered if this was a Johannes idiom. The camp leader rolled his cup in his hand. ‘The cancer wasn’t too severe, so the doctors had prescribed him pills. I told him to ditch them. He threw them away in that bin right there.’ Johannes pointed to a rusty bucket in the corner of the room. ‘Instead, I drew up two initial phases for Peter’s recovery process. Firstly, he had to transform his diet: no more sugar, no more carbs, lots of meat from the farm, and no drinks besides water and my special shots.’ Johannes said this with a grin. ‘Secondly, I prescribed him laughter.’
‘Yes, you heard right. I was reading about a man called Norman Cousins at the time. Do you know him?’ Sophie shook her head. ‘You should look him up; he’s fascinating. To give you an idea of his story, Mr Cousins was diagnosed with a rare form of arthritis in 1964; the doctors told him he had a one in five hundred chance of surviving. But instead of submitting to their prediction, he drew up a two-step plan a bit like the one I gave Peter. First of all, he started injecting himself with huge doses of Vitamin C. Secondly, he watched Candid Camera and lots of comedy films. The idea was that laughter would have an anaesthetic effect, which would allow him to get the sleep he needed. Bear in mind he was in near-constant pain; even morphine wasn’t strong enough to let him sleep, and he could hardly move. But his therapy worked. He started sleeping again, and, bit by bit, he recovered. Only two years after his diagnosis, he returned to work, and he died in 1990 when he was seventy-five.
‘After reading Cousins’ book, I believed Peter could get better. Clearly his cancer was stress- and diet-induced, so I made it my mission to make him less stressed and more disciplined with what he ate. Even though I generally don’t approve of television, I installed a TV in the main house and let Peter choose his comedy shows. The aim was to make him really laugh; Cousins called it ‘genuine belly laughter’. I encouraged Peter to laugh even when he didn’t find the shows particularly funny. I know that sounds crazy, but laughter sets up a positive thought loop in the brain: by convincing yourself you’re happy, you become happier, and that makes it easier to laugh, which makes you happier, and so on.
‘We did this program for about a month, and Peter’s condition improved dramatically. He was now fit enough to exercise, so I gave him a weights program. I can still picture him doing squats in the sun.’ There was a beautiful smile on Johannes’ face. His skin looked young, and his eyes were bright. ‘After three months on my farm, Peter was a different person. He was stronger, happier, and visibly much healthier. But the question was: had it worked? I sent him back to his doctor in Munich, and they did more tests.’ Johannes stared at Sophie. ‘Can you guess what they found?’
‘Nothing. Peter’s cancer had completely disappeared.’
‘That’s amazing!’ Sophie hadn’t used an exclamation mark in weeks.
‘Yes, it is amazing. And it’s amazing because it’s true. Peter continued on my program, and he’s had a remarkable career ever since. He’s become a little less disciplined over the past few years, and I think that’s why he was so shaken by his fall the other day. Hopefully it’ll be a wake-up call.’
Sophie imagined Peter running home after he’d been given the all-clear. Was true suffering necessary in order to feel that kind of joy? He unlocked the door and leapt into his wife’s arms. ‘If you don’t mind me asking, what did Anna make of all this?’
‘Ach, Anna. She’s a fascinating woman. Obviously she was so grateful for what I did for Peter. She came to the farm quite a few times during his stay, and she could see that we were doing great work: we were fighting the cancer rather than simply accepting it as a death sentence. But she believed that her god was working through us; he was inspiring the recovery process. When I asked why this god had refused to heal Peter, she said that Peter lacked faith – she was very sad when she said that. They had a tricky time for a while, but I think Peter was too happy for things to get really difficult. They learnt to live with their different worldviews. It was much harder for Anna than Peter, but she still prays that he’ll return to Jesus.’ Again there was that disdain. Did Johannes somehow know that Sophie was looking towards God? Was he trying to dissuade her? ‘Peter has only found true happiness in Stoicism, not Christianity. But their love was so deep that Anna found a way to live with his betrayal.’
Sophie imagined how difficult that must have been for Anna. The man she loved most in the world was still a lost soul, even if he’d made a remarkable recovery. That must break a woman’s heart. Peter, on the other hand, could accept his wife’s faith so long as ‘the quality of her thoughts was noble’. The Stoic way of life was not grounded in such strong beliefs that it could tear two lovers apart.
Sophie watched Johannes as he scrubbed his dishes. He continued to speak, but she was only half-listening; her eyes followed the movement of his hands.
There was no doubting this man’s success. He had civilised his mind and added happiness to the world; he had entered the ballpark of truth. But Sophie pitied Johannes. Not once in his story had he expressed any tenderness. Instead of love, Sophie sensed frustration at a world that did not square with his view of mankind. He seemed to view the average person as an ailing creature needing to be fixed. In other words, Johannes was still waiting to grasp truth in his mitt.
The previous night, Sophie had overheard Bert talking to Ernest about love. They were discussing Paul’s letters, and one verse in particular: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Sophie looked at the lemon and ginger on the counter. She thought of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In the former, she saw discipline; in the latter, love. Her eyes returned to Johannes and his precise hand movements; her mind returned to Bert and the levity of his voice.
For some reason, love and eternal life seemed more appealing than discipline and a healthy gut.